A Flicker of Hope in Sudan
William O. Lowrey
As dawn breaks in a cattle camp in southern Sudan the embers of the night’s fire are nearly extinguished. A few coals still burn hot if one sifts through the ashes. A neighbor whose fire has gone out comes over and stoops at the campfire site. The tall thin Nilotic limbs fold into miniature space with feet flat on the soil, buttocks nearly touching the ground and arms that seem capable of circling the fire site. Leathery hands, toughened and hardened over the years, pluck a hot coal from the embers. The elongated body once again fully extends and a graceful and unhurried walk transports the hot cargo to the next luak (homestead). The fire is passed, neighbor to neighbor. A new day begins with a simple act of sharing. For centuries it has been this way.
But today in southern Sudan the embers of hope are nearly extinguished. The night of fighting and famine has lasted too long. It is questionable whether a fresh flame of hope can be stirred. The stories being written, the scenes being shown on television screens around the world, the impressions of foreign journalists and diplomats have a sameness to them. It is a complex humanitarian crisis that offers a variety of entry points, heart-rending personal stories, tough and sometimes cynical political analyses, and finally frustration at failure to find a thread of hope in the foreseeable future.
But quietly, mostly unknown to the world and governments, a neighbor-to-neighbor sharing of a few hot coals is causing a flicker of hope. The coal carriers who are lighting these fires of peace come from the Dinka and Nuer peoples, the two largest ethnic groups of southern Sudan. This is the untold and still unfolding story. I tell it as a participant observer, having worked among the Sudanese for the past eight years, moving between their world and the outside world. I am not a detached analyst. My very soul cries out with the pain of their suffering. For years I have longed for the Sudan story to be told. But the truncated story that is now in the public is often devoid of appreciation of a proud people with a rich history and a depth of culture and meaning and values. It is also a difficult story for Americans to engage.
Counting the ribs of a child in the last stages of starvation is not what people want to do. There is something within us that cries out for relief and wants to turn our eyes away. The gruesome pictures once again coming from Sudan are strikingly similar to images one is confronted in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It is emotionally draining to pass through the museum, to look, to listen to testimony, to reflect on a reality that was denied for so long. I once stood with Sudanese refugees in the Holocaust Museum gazing at the mounds of shoes left by those who were gassed. For these refugees it was a stunning moment. They had never heard of Hitler or the Holocaust. They were moved to the depth of their beings, and then they said, AThe only difference in Sudan is we don’t have shoes and no one knows our names.@ At the end of the museum journey some find a little comfort in saying, ANever again.@
In late 1993, after three years of working in southern Sudan as Projects Director for a faith-based Non-Government Organization, I relocated to the Washington, DC area from Nairobi, Kenya. I carried with me the images and trauma of doing cross-border work in the rebel zones, helping organize relief and rehabilitation projects among displaced people, seeing children and adults die of starvation, and facing the anxieties of government bombing attacks and local militia raids. It was this experience in the field, followed by advocacy work on Sudan in Washington and Ph.D. field research of traditional methods of conflict mediation in Sudan that had laid the foundation for me to be asked to facilitate a peace conference between Dinka and Nuer border chiefs.
One of my first acts in Washington, D.C. was to visit the Vietnam Memorial. I stood tearfully before "The Wall" with its engraved names, and I shuddered to think it would take some twenty-five walls of similar size to enroll the names of the dead of Sudan. But no one knows the names. Every year or two another wall would have to be added. The dying goes on. It is not possible to comprehend. So we find relief not in saying ANever again@ but rather in making an entire country the tomb of the unknown.
But the images of death have intruded once again. It is now only a few months since President Clinton traveled to Africa and declared in Kigali, Rwanda that we had failed miserably to halt the genocide of Rwanda and must not allow this again. The details are different now, but it is too subtle a difference to try to argue that the recent pledge doesn’t apply. It seems to be Sudan’s turn to take center stage in the theater of horrors. The statistics are mind-numbing:
The political complexities of Sudan are daunting even to those who become analysts and try to make sense of the world’s longest running civil war that continues to resist solutions. Professional diplomats and experienced experts in foreign policy shake their heads with an inability to find a clear path to move forward toward a resolution of issues. It is no wonder that private citizens who see and hear reports via the media find themselves torn with a desire to help and yet troubled with the realization that unresolved conflict continues to be a primary root cause to the burgeoning famine. Even the restricted area three-month cease fire that has recently been declared by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the Government of Sudan is recognized as, at best, a momentary breathing space if the root causes of conflict are not addressed.
A recent Reuters story quoted Claude Jibidar, south Sudan field coordinator for UN World Food Program, saying AThe Sudanese shouldn=t need food assistance. They have coping mechanisms that are simply amazing. They know how to deal with floods, they know how to deal with drought, but what they can=t deal with is the war.@
Well, in fact, there is something stirring in southern Sudan to try to deal with the war. It was not initiated by the United Nations, the United States, western diplomats, or military antagonists. It is a story of people at the grass-roots and at the middle levels of society who refuse to cave in to despair. I tell it from the perspective of an American who has been privileged to be present with them in their process. But it is their story, and if it comes to full fruition, it will be their peace and they will be the unknown peacemakers.
A quiet revolution for peace has been initiated in southern Sudan by local chiefs and church leaders from the Dinka and Nuer peoples. If the peace that is struggling to be born is fully successful, then a little noticed Conference in Loki, Kenya may be looked back upon as the nine days in June that brought hope to multiple thousands of South Sudanese buffeted by this relentless civil war and expanding famine.
The Dinka and Nuer are the two largest ethnic groups or tribes in southern Sudan with the SIL Ethnologue placing their numbers conservatively at 1.35 million for Dinka and .75 million for Nuer. Much of the inter-ethnic and inter-factional fighting of the past seven years has been between these two groups. The main rebel force, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), draws its greatest strength from the Dinka. The largest break-off faction of the SPLA, known as the South Sudan Independence Movement/Army (SSIM/A) has its strength among the Nuer and has been in conflict with the SPLA since late 1991. The SSIA, along with several smaller rebel groups, signed a peace agreement with the Government of Sudan in April 1997, making them a military force allied with the government in the fight against the SPLA. Among the Dinka, the strongest Christian churchs are the Episcopal and Catholic while the primary church of the Nuer is the Presbyterian. Dinka and Nuer traditional religions have a profound influence on the population. Chiefs of Dinka and Nuer have militia and traditionally bear responsibility for both prosecuting war and mediating peace. Therefore, the primary military, church and traditional religious lines have divided Dinka and Nuer. The one fragile thread of connection has been held by the New Sudan Council of Churches with its linkages to the people on both sides of the Dinka - Nuer divide.
With a year of advance work the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) planned and sponsored a peacemaking conference that brought together about thirty-five participants. NSCC Peacemaking staff member Festus Ufulle Ga-aro, an Equatorian, spent months contacting church leaders and chiefs, working with factional leaders and laying the ground work with Kenya government officials to allow the meeting to be held on Kenya soil. Small aircraft plucked waiting chiefs and church leaders from remote bush airfields in southern Sudan and brought them to the town of Loki in Kenya just across the Sudan border.
This once sleepy town of the Turkana people with their straight-back pride, colorful beaded necklaces, herds of goats and cows, and rugged capacity to live in harsh conditions, has now been almost overwhelmed with the worlds largest international relief effort. From pre-dawn to the fall of darkness lumbering Hercules C-130 aircraft lift off a tarmac airstrip with roughly sixteen tonnes of food and race to pinpoint locations for low level air drops of their cargo. The air is pierced with the thunder of their engines during each rotation, and conversations of those on the ground beneath them come to awkward halts until the aircraft has passed on its way. No one complains of the interruptions. It is a sound that signals hope that a few more of the starving may live.
The busyness of Loki is a modern technological implant into a traditional setting. The ICRC (International Committee of Red Cross) Hospital has doctors, nurses and equipment to run a first class field hospital for war wounded who are daily evacuated from the bush. Numerous NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) run their base camps. Operation LifeLine Sudan, the UN umbrella for the primary relief operation, provides housing and excellent meals, sends four-wheeled drive vehicles scurrying through the sand and dust to keep the logistical work in full-swing, and links personnel with hand held radios. In addition High Frequency radio channels are bombarded with messages sent out to the far-flung locations of southern Sudan to coordinate movement of people, aircraft and supplies.
Into this hubbub of activity and artificial world of foreigners came a select group of unlikely peacemakers. It included the key Dinka and Nuer border chiefs, local pastors, senior church leaders and representative of the two major military factional groups. A number of participants came straight from famine conditions and terrible suffering and then returned to those same settings following the conference. They lived in two-person tents, ate common meals, met in a large upstairs open air room at the base camp of one of the relief transporters, and were transported from camp to daily meetings with relays rides in an open pick-up truck. The luxury was in being temporarily away from war and famine and being given open ended opportunities to tell their stories to one another. The conference was held June 2-10 with the $35,000 cost provided in a grant from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I served as a consultant to NSCC and as facilitator of the peacemaking conference.
As we gathered, there were three primary objectives. The first was to help Dinka and Nuer chiefs and church leaders reconcile with one another and rebuild or establish new relationships across their differences. Secondly they needed to reflect upon their traditional patterns of peacemaking from Dinka and Nuer customary law and practice and gain new understanding of conflict management and reconciliation in the modern context. Finally, it was hoped that joint Dinka-Nuer teams would form and develop strategies for building peace at the grass-roots and middle levels of society.
In the last seven years of factional fighting, with particularly intense conflict between Dinka and Nuer, the key chiefs and church leaders from both sides had never been able to meet together and talk. The conflict has caused thousands of deaths, including women and children, and cost hundreds of thousands of cattle killed and raided. The destruction has been so great that on the west side of the Nile a 50-100 mile wide Ano man=s land@ has developed all along the border of Dinkaland and Nuerland. It contains some of the richest grazing lands and the best fishing lakes which right now even with the famine, can't be fished because of the danger of fighting.
The conflict between Dinka and Nuer on the west side of the Nile involves the regions of Bahr el Gahzal and Western Upper Nile. As they weakened themselves in fighting one another, they became prey to Arab militia groups allied with the government. In recent months thousands of horse cavalry and foot soldiers in these militia have created a swath of destruction among the Dinka in northern Bahr el Gahzal. Everything in the way is burned, cattle are looted, women and children are killed or taken as slaves, and dead bodies are thrown into wells to pollute the water supply. It is not surprising that this is the most intense famine zone. In a strange twist such incredible suffering has now created an opportunity for peacemaking between Dinka and Nuer. If they can resolve issues, reconcile their relationships and unite against outside attacks, it could transform the conflict – one of the most critical root causes of the current famine.
At the beginning of the peace conference I searched for visual images with which to work. In oral cultures, symbols and places become powerful. In a conference where everything had to be translated into English, Dinka and Nuer, diagrams and concepts were kept simple and opportunities were provided for leaders to extensively explain the concepts in their own language and use numerous concrete examples.
I wanted to create a sense of place in the meeting room. We began by drawing a large map of the area that includes Nuerland and Dinkaland on both sides of the Nile. Dr. Marc Nikkel, who works as an Episcopal priest among the Dinka, took on this project. With the help of all the participants identifying their home places, it became a powerful picture map on the wall. Then I said that much of the floor space would be a map of the same area. I took a rope and made it the Nile River. Then each person placed their chair on the floor-map where they lived. This created groupings on the West of the Nile so that the Dinka in Bahr el Ghazal faced the Nuer across their borders in Western Upper Nile. On the East of the Nile the Dinka of Bor and Jonglei faced the Nuer of Upper Nile. We discussed the number of hours or days it would take to walk to each place and established who were neighbors to one another. The neighbor relationships were identified as the critical conflict resolution priorities.
With the physical space created, we had to create a space of time and opportunity for building relationships. I told the biblical story of the Apostle Thomas who had to see, reach out, and touch the wounds of Jesus before he could be reconciled (John 20: 24-29). The Christian understanding is that Thomas, along with all of humanity, had caused the wounds of Jesus. Therefore, I invited the Dinka and Nuer to tell their stories, to show their wounds to one another and speak openly of the pain and suffering they had caused one another over the past seven years. We began with the Dinka of Bahr el Ghazal. They could all speak as long as they wanted. No one would be allowed to interrupt or argue. Everyone else would listen, for listening is the beginning of rebuilding broken relationships. Those who were listening knew that their time to tell their stories would come and others would listen to them.
This storytelling lasted for the first three days of the conference. It was incredibly powerful and moving. The stories of pain and suffering were heartbreaking. As they listened to one another their analysis of the conflict became deeper and deeper. It was as though they were peeling back layer upon layer of pain and discovering afresh, that at their core, they are from one family. There was a common sharing in the suffering and a deep passion for finding a way to build peace and reconciliation. As people shared their stories, they stood and walked around on the floor-map. Two translators walked with them, translating as they walked, so that everything was spoken in Dinka, Nuer and English. The translators were not outside hired people. They were participants who were willing to serve one another. It became a way of building bonds of relationships. At times it looked like a dance or drama being played out on the map as they moved back and forth across the rope Nile and pointed to places where events occurred.
Bishop Nathaniel Garang, a Dinka from Bor, relived the dreadful Nuer attacks on his home area in December 1991, a time when he was away from the area. He described the journey of going home to search for his family. Bloated unburied human bodies littered the sides of the roads and the carcasses of thousands of cattle were baking in the scorching sun. When Bishop Garang arrived at his home toukel (mud house with thatched roof), he found it riddled from automatic weapons fire and empty of people or bodies. Going into the woods he found a cave where all of his family members had been able to find refuge and escape the slaughter. In the pain of the storytelling a spirit of reconciliation was nurtured and fresh winds of hope began to stir. Chiefs who follow their traditional religion and Christian church leaders equally began to speak of the unfolding conference as nothing less than a gift from God.
On the fourth day, we entered a second round of storytelling. War tends to create a temporal reductionism where surviving one day at a time is paramount. But for Dinka and Nuer there is a strong traditional connection with the previous generations and the future grandchildren. To help the participants reconnect with the past I asked them to listen to the wisdom of their father=s father and their mother=s mother. I said, ATell your stories of how you have resolved conflicts in the past. Draw on the wisdom of your ancestors and reflect on what gifts you want to give to your grandchildren who want to be born in peace.@ After each story was told we summarized the principles of conflict resolution from Dinka or Nuer traditions. This created a foundation of indigenous knowledge and values that must be the starting point for making peace.
The stories of past conflict and peacemaking connected with the current crisis and led to additional analysis of the conflict. A consensus developed that much of the inter-factional fighting between Nuer and Dinka has been based on the struggle for leadership within the movements. The communities became instruments of those battles and then escalated them beyond the political to personal and ethnic fighting. It was tempting to point the finger at factional leaders, but rather than do that, the chiefs and church leaders began to accept responsibility for the destructive patterns they were following. With that acceptance became a commitment to also take responsibility for making peace. Chief Nyuong Danhier, a Nuer from Nyal, said, AWe are capable of making reconciliation and peace even if Garang and Riek are not present. Don=t blame them -- we are capable to make peace. . . We are responsible.@ By framing their conflict as neighbor-to-neighbor and Dinka-to-Nuer, rather than between SPLM/A and SSIM/A, they were firmly placing the burden of responsibility on themselves.
This analysis of the politics and embracing of personal responsibility came to a dramatic crescendo during a presentation by Bishop Nathaniel Garang, a Dinka from Bor. He talked about the Achair of leadership.@ He said that the chair seeks out the leader when all is well in the community. But in this conflict people are fighting for the chair. At that point in his story, even though he is getting old and has a very painful right hand and arm swollen by arthritis, he picked up a heavy wooden chair and lifted it above his head. At times he staggered, bending under the load. Those present leaned forward. The whole community wanted to help him and keep him from falling under the weight. He walked around under this load, saying this burden is too heavy on the people. Then he said, AWho will help me with this burden? Who will lift the load from me?@ As he called out in distress, suddenly Chief William Ruaei, the oldest chief present among the Nuer, leaped from his chair. He shouted out the name of his favorite bull and praised the name of the bull. Then he said, AI will help you with your burden!@ Chief William reached up for the chair and helped Bishop Garang take the load from above his head and slowly place it on the floor. The whole community of Nuer and Dinka were on their feet, shouting for these elderly leaders as they removed the load together. The symbolic imagery was dramatic and moving, causing the group to burst into clapping and joyful shouts. The message was clear. If Dinka and Nuer will work together, they can remove the weight of war that is crushing them. They can do it themselves, not waiting for political leaders to show the way.
Adding to the traditional wisdom of both Dinka and Nuer, I introduced some diagrams and concepts from modern conflict resolution and peace building practices. We looked at cycles of conflict that continue to bring destruction unless there is proper intervention. The cycles begin with hidden hurts lying dormant within people, waiting for a trigger event to surface them. Something as common as a few young men raiding a neighbors cattle, a solitary act of vengeance, or taking fish from waters administered by a neighboring people can be the trigger that uncovers the old wounds. Freshly activated conflicts escalate and cause destruction. Fight upon fight is generated in a pattern of expanding violence until the pain is so great that a temporary separation occurs. When the conflict finds its place to pause, it leaves more hidden hurts as everyone loses, even when one side thinks it won a particular battle.
In contrast to destructive cycles of conflict we considered a cycle of constructive engagement with one another. Hidden hurts must be identified and brought to the surface in an environment where people can listen to the pain and find common reasons to move toward resolution and reconciliation. In such a climate, the antagonists can make mutual commitments that they will diligently pursue a process toward peace. This can lead to face-to-face meetings where issues can be addressed and resolved and relationships can be reconciled. A covenant of peace can be shaped and rituals of expressing forgiveness and sealing the covenant can cement the vows into place. This enables people to make a fresh start, moves the former antagonists into mutual activities of peace building, and stirs up a vision in the people for a peace that can be sustained.
A third diagram was the shape of the roof of their houses or toukels. It was an image of a luak or homestead. From the west we may think in terms of a pyramid. This diagram shows the top leadership, the middle level of leaders and the grass-roots at the base. Conflict is like a bolt of lightening that creates a cleavage right through the roof of the house, from top to bottom. Relationships have to be built horizontally across the conflict lines at each level and vertically between the levels of leadership. Our conference included the grass-roots and middle level leaders, with the latter having relationships with the top.
With each diagram there were sentence by sentence explanations and translations. Then the translators become the teachers, explaining the diagrams with their own descriptions and concrete illustrations. It became evident that this method of teaching was effective. In the final days of the conference, chiefs and church leaders returned to the diagrams and used them to explain the points they were making. A deep commitment to work for peace between Dinka and Nuer was forming in the hearts and minds of the participants. It was built on relationships beginning to heal, common convictions that political battles for leadership must not be allowed to destroy them, and a growing awareness that this was the moment when they as traditional and middle level leaders should seize the initiative and make peace their highest concern.
One morning Chief William Ruaei, the oldest of the Nuer chiefs, a man with 30+ wives, his own army of soldiers, rugged and yet sweet, said "I did not sleep at all last night. My body was so happy because my mind could only think about peace."
For the last three days of the conference, two working groups were formed, one for the West of the Nile and one for the East. Separate strategies were required for each side of the Nile to move toward ending the conflicts, resolving the issues and reconciling relationships. Occasionally the groups reported to one another about their progress and plans. It was both an exciting and stressful period in the conference. As hours passed, occasional problems threatened to unravel the progress on the East. Key border chiefs from the Dinka had not been able to come to the meeting and the lack of counterparts for the Nuer chiefs created difficulties in finalizing some plans. Finally, breakthroughs enabled good progress to be made.
The most important border chiefs and church leaders were all present from the West side of the Nile. They organized themselves, mapped out a strategy for a full Nuer-Dinka peace, established roles and time lines, analyzed the barriers and opposition they would have to face, and set a date and place for a major peace conference in their area. This follow-up peace conference on the West side of the Nile will bring together almost all of the border Dinka and Nuer chiefs, elders, church leaders and commanders. It is expected that there will be about five hundred delegates and as many as fifteen-hundred observers from the Dinka and Nuer. People will walk for days to get from their homes to the meeting place. All the outstanding issues over these years of conflict will have to be addressed. Days will be spent in storytelling so that the depth of the pain is known and the root issues are surfaced. This next conference will last for several weeks rather than just days. It will use traditional processes with a full expectation that at the end there will be a covenant of peace with the vows of the people. Oxen will be slaughtered and rituals will be performed to seal the covenant of peace and to bring the antagonists under a common set of vows. Institutional arrangements will re-establish traditional policing mechanism and courts to handle those who break the peace agreement. A final feast can be expected so that former antagonists share in eating the meat of the sacrificed cows and express the oneness and reconciliation of people who have been at war.
Such a conclusion of the peace conference can reopen the grazing lands and fishing lakes so they are once again shared areas rather than the current Ano man=s land.@ That will have a direct impact in providing food in the famine. If all hostilities cease between Nuer and Dinka on the West side of the Nile, it will create a momentum for peace between Nuer and Dinka that will carry over to the East side of the Nile. Furthermore, it will change the dynamic of the inter-factional fighting. It is conceivable that the grass-roots and middle level leadership of the Nuer and Dinka communities may be able to generate options for resolving inter-factional conflicts, particularly the leadership issues. Rather than a top down approach to these issues, it could be the moment when the top leaders are ready to support the grass-roots and allow this process to unfold in a way that creates new opportunities for a broader peace.
On the final day of the Nuer - Dinka peace conference, June 10th, a special service of worship was held and there was a ceremony for signing and thumb printing what was called the ANuer-Dinka Loki Accord.@ The Loki Accord issued a call for peace among the Nuer and Dinka people. It stated:
AAfter 15 years of conflict, we . . . the chiefs and church leaders demand:
We have further agreed to hold a series of meetings throughout all communities in the East and West Banks of the Nile to pursue all possible means towards a just and lasting peace in the land of Nuer and Dinka.@
The names, signatures and thumb prints of eight border chiefs, eleven church leaders, and one technical adviser from the South Sudan Law Society are attached to the Accord.
Before the signing ceremony, the Christian church leaders led the conference in a service of worship. There was no indication that the chiefs who embrace traditional religion felt any discomfort in this Christian act. Rather, they expressed a sense of inclusion by boldly and loudly participating. Psalm 46 was used as a responsive liturgy. After each verse was read the whole conference shouted out in English, then Dinka, then Nuer the message from verse nine: "God breaks the bow and shatters the spear." The shouting got louder with each verse, one chief pounded his staff on the floor and then thrust it high into the air as he shouted his response. The sense of exuberance was evident, moving toward the climax of the signing ceremony.
When it was time to sign the Loki Accord, Telar Deng, from the South Sudan Law Society acted as the chairman of the ceremony. He read the full text of the Accord. Then he sat at a wooden table with an empty chair to his right, two official copies of the Accord in front of him, and an ink pad next to the documents. Solemnly he began to call out the names of the church leaders and chiefs. As he called a name, that person went forward and sat in the chair at the signing table. When someone was unskilled in reading and writing, Telar held the persons hand and assisted in guiding the mark to the line over the person’s printed name. Then Telar took the person’s right hand, pressed the thumb onto the ink pad, and carefully made the thumbprint beside the written signature. Short of sacrificing a cow, this was a sealing of the covenant with the personal mark of every participant. After signing and thumb printing, each person was given an opportunity to express in words or acts the depth of their commitment to this peace.
The church leaders were called first, allowing a climax to occur with the chiefs. From the Nuer and Presbyterian came Rev. Matthew Mathiang Deang, a large powerful man with a commanding presence. He said, ALet us not let this document shame us. In a few months we must not hear of any fighting. We must succeed.@
Recognizing the barriers ahead, Fr. Raphael Riel, a Dinka and Catholic said, AThere will be many difficulties and dangers—the people who work against peace are around.@
Expressing his depth of commitment, Archdeacon Daniel Dau, an Episcopal Dinka from the east side of the Nile, proclaimed, AI have signed it in my heart and offer to be a living sacrifice.@
And expressing the spiritual realities of reconciliation Rev. John Macar, who has lived and traveled with the "Lost Boys of Sudan" and is their pastor in the Episcopal church in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, declared almost as a benediction, ALet this peace be inside us and not just on our lips...Let God forgive Dinka and let God forgive Nuer and give in their hearts this peace.@
Finally the time had come for the chiefs to make their statements. When Chief William Ruaei moved to the center table to sign the Accord, he was shuffling and dancing and shouting "Praise to God, Let the Nation be in Peace, Let the Peace Continue" over and over and over. After signing the Accord he went around shaking hands and embracing both Dinka and Nuer. Then he began to dance in the middle of the group. This old man at times can hardly walk. His feet look like clubs. But it looked like the joy and hope of peace had captured his heart.
Immediately after Chief William came Chief Kakeny Kamic, a Dinka from Yirol. After signing the Accord, he spoke of his commitment to change the situation in the bush by concrete actions. He said, "What is good is for people to face each other. After this I will allow the Nuer to come to my grazing area and water points starting in January so they will know we are serious about this peace."
Then Chief Makeny showed that he had a vision that was greater than a Nuer-Dinka peace. He said, "You have brought us here successful for this reconciliation. Why don=t you go to the Arab chiefs and bring them here for reconciliation.@
After speaking his words, Chief Makeny broke into a beautiful victory song of joy and danced to his seat to the cheers and clapping of the group.
When the chiefs and church leaders had all signed, it was time for the ceremonial chair, Mr. Telar Deng to pen his name, leave his print and speak his words of wisdom. He expressed the joy of the occasion, linked it with the wisdom of the traditional sayings, cautioned about the difficulties that lay ahead, and exhorted the conference to pursue the peace.
Telar profoundly said, "It has been a great achievement. Since 1991 we have never had a time to come together. As we say in Dinka, AWhat destroys a home is not death—it is hatred.@ Death can not kill all of us, but hatred will disperse us and destroy us. When we leave, let us go home and unite our communities and face the difficult road ahead of peace, reconciliation and unity. We must know it is not easy. If you have the will power, it doesn=t matter who stands in front of you. I know after this, the practicality on the ground, death will still be there, attacks will still be there. Don=t be discouraged—pursue peace and reconciliation—don=t give up!@
The final act of the conference was a Feast of Peace. A goat had been slaughtered and roasted while the signing ceremony was underway. Additional guests from the leadership of the two military faction had been invited to join the chiefs and church leaders for the meal to hear the first report of the success of the conference. The sharing of meat in a common meal was a symbol of the unity of the conference and a sending off of the participants back into the bush to implement their commitments.
In a concrete way, the participants had tasted of some of the fruit that could come with peace on the ground. They lived in the bush with not only the reality of famine but also the corresponding gap in basic health care. Weakened bodies become vulnerable to numerous diseases. During the peace conference, an unanticipated need was for many of the participants to receive medical attention. Four came down with malaria, one with typhoid fever, one had swelling from elbow to fingers with arthritis, and there were other common ailments of bacteria and parasites. Daily, the pick-up truck shuttling us to our meeting place had to make stops at the local clinic in Loki. It turned out to be an opportunity for practical assistance. The result was that everyone returned to their home areas in much better health than when they had arrived and having eaten well while they were attending the meetings.
The coming months will once again require strong outside support for the next phase of the peace conference on the West of the Nile to be accomplished. In the days following the conference, a series of briefing were held in Nairobi with the movement leaders and to stir up support from outside sources. Additional briefings have been held with United States and European government representatives as well as contacts with key Non-Government Organizations.
In the bush in southern Sudan, Dinka chiefs have already taken steps to show their seriousness and build confidence. Six Nuer women and children who had been abducted in recent raids were released and sent home to their families and villages. Nuer chiefs faced serious difficulties as a section of the Nuer under its commanders launched devastating attacks against other Nuer in the Western Upper Nile. Home villages of some of the chiefs and church leaders who were at the conference came under serious attack. This indicated that serious cracks have been revealed between former rebel groups who had signed a peace agreement with the Government of Sudan in 1997. Such attacks could threaten the Nuer-Dinka peace process. However, Nuer leaders are reaffirming their commitment to the process, determined to not let renegade commanders destroy the peace efforts, and taking steps to work at intra-Nuer reconciliation prior to the next Nuer-Dinka peace conference.
In Nairobi, a Coordinating Team is fully operational in working to implement the Nuer-Dinka peace process. It includes Dinka and Nuer leaders, women=s organizations for peace, the South Sudan Law Society, the New Sudan Council of Churches, and has representatives from the SPLM (the mainstream rebel group) and the UDSF (the umbrella group that signed the peace agreement with the Government of Sudan).
Organizing efforts are underway in the field, even while the famine rages. Chiefs and village people are being briefed, commissioners and commanders are being contacted and enlisted. NGOs are planning how to support the effort of the people. Water resources have to be evaluated and new bore holes may be required for the site of the peace conference. Food will have to be pre-positioned. Used clothing will be needed as Agoods-for-work@ to support young people who will build shelters for the hundreds of participants. Chiefs have pledged cattle for meat. Transport will need to be organized for a few of the elderly chiefs who are deeply respected and viewed as vital to a successful process. All other participants will walk, some for days, to get to the conference location. Security will be vital since the meeting will take place in a zone that has now been at war for fifteen years.
This passing of the peace by the people in southern Sudan may be sabotaged by opponents or collapse under the weight of the famine that is devastating the land. But it also may succeed. A burning coal is being carried from neighbor to neighbor. It could be the coal that lights a great fire. The confluences of forces now at work in Sudan present a rare opportunity for peace to be grasped.
World leaders and diplomats tend to focus on top leaders. During the days of August 4-6, attention was focused on peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as high level delegations of the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement met to negotiate. The neighboring African nations hosted the meeting. The Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity, Salim Ahmed Salim, urged the sides to make peace. The French news agency quoted Salim as saying that "absolutely nothing can justify a continuation of this conflict." The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, offered to personally come and assist in the mediation process. The United States sent a top diplomat to add the weight of the world’s last superpower. But in the end the only agreement was to meet again in six months. The fragile and limited three month cease-fire in the famine zone was neither extended nor expanded in scope. The issues of sharia (Islamic) law, the definition of what constitutes the south, a process of interim arrangements that could precede a referendum on unity or separation, and the right of self-determination or self-expression for the transition zones between south and north, all became stumbling blocks that proved to be irreconcilable in this round of talks.
While recognized national leaders debate their positions, world leaders press for progress in peace, the United Nations and numerous humanitarian organizations race the clock and the weather in the face of brutal logistical barriers, the famine and war go on. The dying is a daily ritual that in places outruns the capacity of local people to dig graves. The world wearies of this level of suffering without evident hope. There is limited patience with "man-made famines."
At this point, what happens in the bush in southern Sudan under the leadership of unknown peacemakers among the Dinka and Nuer may be the most important developments to watch. Maybe it is also time for policy makers in the United States and other countries to shift their exclusive focus from the macro issues and begin to take note of the grass-roots and middle level leaders. Resolution of issues between tribes and peoples and reconciliation of neighbors, especially in southern Sudan, may be the instrument of change that can provide the missing leverage on leaders. In the end it will take leadership at every level, from the grass-roots to the top officials and commanders. But this may be the kairos moment when the Alittle people will point the way and the chiefs and church leaders will use their moral authority with a force that can surpass both war and famine.
Author: Dr. William O. Lowrey is the Sudan Partnership Facilitator for the Presbyterian Church (USA). After working for three years in cross-border work in the rebel zones of southern Sudan, he moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1993 to help coordinate advocacy on Sudan. During the past five years he has traveled to Sudan three to four times a year to do research on grass-roots peace efforts, consult on organizational capacity building for indigenous Sudanese organizations, and facilitate partnerships of projects and personnel. His Ph.D., completed in 1996 from The Union Institute in Cincinnati, OH, is in Intercultural Organizational Behavior and Development. His dissertation is titled "Passing the Peace . . . People to People: The Role of Religion in an Indigenous Peace Process Among the Nuer of Sudan." Dr. Lowrey facilitated the Nuer – Dinka Peace Conference in June 1998 which resulted in the Nuer-Dinka Loki Accord.